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The leadership qualities of a CIO veteran

Jim Noble, the former CIO at AOL, GM and BP, shares three leadership qualities that lead to business success.

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I set out to find out what the buzz was on this week's World BPO/ITO Forum in New York when I got on the phone with the chairman of the event, Jim Noble. In a nutshell, the business process and IT outsourcing world is undergoing a "sea change," Noble told me.

The days of megadeals and monolithic contracts and years-long IT projects are gone; in their place is the need to be agile and accountable for business outcomes. "Today, if you said, 'The business result is years away so I can't take accountability,' [the business] would laugh at you. The result needs to be six months away," Noble said.

And guess what? You are accountable. As a result, CIO users of outsourcing services are taking on much more of the systems integration and service integration responsibilities.

You could spend hours picking Noble's brain on the BPO landscape, or any other tech topic, really, but what I wanted to know was what Noble would have done differently in his previous roles and what advice he has for CIOs today. He himself has been credited with sea changes while he held the CIO position at General Motors Co., British Petroleum and Talisman Energy Inc., where he launched in-house IT academies and used technology as an enabler of business outcomes.

Even over the phone, it was clear why so many global companies (AOL Time Warner, General Electric Co. and Kraft Foods Inc.) have reached out to tap his leadership qualities. He did not assume that I knew what he was talking about, taking me back to the days of telcos and grids to explain the origins of cloud computing and service-oriented architecture, for example. He was quick to point out the things he would have done differently, including his focusing too much on cost versus business results.

Among the many leadership qualities that came through:

  1. His ability to think on his feet no matter what question I threw at him;
  2. His ability to see things in new ways, such as the need for big service providers to move toward industrial strength (versus commodity) services and commit to business outcomes, such as gain share or risk/reward payment models, with their clients; and
  3. His willingness to take risks. He was once a military test pilot and racecar driver, although you would never guess it from his calm, somewhat academic demeanor.

Above all, as I learned from his patient explanations, Jim Noble is a coach -- for the major leagues. Here are three leadership qualities he believes lead to CIO success:

Discover what the single most important issue is for your CEO or executive committee; become a technology enabler for that issue and bring your street smarts into play.

Today, if you said, 'The business result is years away, so I can't take accountability,' [the business] would laugh at you. The result needs to be six months away.
Jim Noble

"If you're in a manufacturing company, the key issue can be quality, as it was for me in General Motors. If you're in a process company, the key issue could be unplanned business outage. If you are with an energy company, the issue could be safety, as it was for me at BP and Talisman," Noble said.

"Once you're convinced that you've latched on to the winning idea, then you use all your street smarts to get one [line of business] to pilot the idea and make the another [line of] business envious of that success and have them want to jump on the bandwagon. You can trick them by allowing the early adopters to go to the head of the line with equipment refreshes or the most modern smartphones. You give them the goodies and they willingly embrace the idea -- that's what I mean by being street smart. You coax one of your lines of business to be the exemplar and then the others watch and want to follow."

Focus on real-time, fact-based decision support

On the question of what technology he believes will revolutionize business as we know it, Noble said:

"Across every industry sector I've worked in, there's been one thing and that's been fact-based decision support. You might want to call it analytics or big data, structured or unstructured data, real-time data, predictive analytics or in-memory processing, but if the IT people can give the business people the facts, then the business people will run the business better.

"The connection between good quality data delivered in a timely fashion and a business that prospers --that connection is indisputable."

Take accountability for business outcomes

"CIOs generally tended to be order takers. We tended to focus on silently running, smoother operations. We tended to automate the business process and sometimes we made bad things happen faster. ... I wish we had stood up and taken responsibility for business results with all of these initiatives," Noble said.

More on CIOs creating business value

"Historically, we found a lot of excuses not to do things. It's a business initiative, not an IT initiative, and, therefore, we said the business people were the only ones who can take accountability for success. That was more of a smokescreen than a reality. We should have adopted the two-in-a-box model, where the business and IT leader oversee the execution of the initiative and accountability of it and are rewarded in compensation for the result. In the olden days, we used to say, 'But the result is years away,' and that was our biggest mistake. It was years away, and things changed. People moved on; the business climate changed; the macroeconomic situation changed.

"Today, if you said, 'The business result is years away, so I can't take accountability,' they would laugh at you. The result needs to be six months away, and in six months, if you can't stand up and be counted, then more fool you. Even when CIOs were aligning IT to business initiatives -- running IT as a business -- IT was run on cost. Now, we should be running IT as a business on business-outcome grounds."

Christina Torode is editorial director for SearchCIO.com; write to her at ctorode@techtarget.com.

This was first published in July 2013

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Careers in information technology: A CIO guide to getting ahead in IT
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